The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a suit alleging that Southern Hills Medical Center of Nashville unlawfully discriminated against an Islamic employee.
Wali Telwar, a former medical technician at Southern Hills, was allegedly told by the hospital that he would need to resign if he wanted to make a pilgrimage required by his faith, rather than use the vacation time he had accumulated.
Telwar resigned and completed the two-week pilgrimage, but when he applied to regain his job, the hospital did not hire him — even though three other medical technicians were hired while the application was active, according to the EEOC suit.
Southern Hills, which is owned by HCA TriStar Health System, said in a Wednesday statement that the hospital has not been served with a lawsuit. The statement indicates, however, that all charges will be denied.
“We did not discriminate against Mr. Telwar,” the statement reads. “We intend to defend our position vigorously.”
According to the suit, Telwar worked at Southern Hills from March of 2003 until December of 2005, when he resigned to complete the pilgrimage. He requested the time off, in writing, on Nov. 3, 2005, and proposed to use accumulated paid time off to be absent from work Dec. 7 through Jan. 17, the EEOC claims.
“One of the Five Pillars of Islam is a once-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, called a Hajj, which is required of all believers,” the suit reads. “Rather than granting Telwar’s request to be off to make the Hajj required by Islam, Defendant told Telwar that if he insisted on going to Mecca, he would have to resign his position… Defendant told Telwar he could reapply for his position after he returned from his trip.”
The suit states Telwar returned from the Hajj on Jan. 17 and reapplied, but was not rehired. The EEOC claims that it attempted to reach a settlement with Southern Hills. The suit was filed Sept. 28 in the U.S. District Court of Middle Tennessee.
The lawsuit asks the court to, among other things, grant a permanent injunction enjoining Southern Hills Medical Center from engaging in any discriminatory practices on the basis of religion, and to grant back wages, compensatory and punitive damages.
Nashville-based Sally Ramsey, senior trial attorney for the EEOC, said there’s a difference between an employer denying time off and penalizing a worker for his or her religious beliefs.
“No one’s coming to us just because they want time off,” Ramsey said. “We’re alleging that’s a sincerely held religious belief.”
The suit is part of what Vanderbilt law professor Robert Belton, who specializes in labor and employment law, calls a national “uptick” in employment discrimination suits related to the Islamic faith. The trend started immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans became “more sensitive” to treatment of individuals of Islamic faith.
In Middle Tennessee, Whirlpool Corp. of LaVergne and Dell Computer’s Nashville plant have both been involved in public disputes related to accommodations for Muslim employees.
Nationwide, in cases related to all religions, the EEOC has ramped its efforts up from charging and resolving 1,811 case receipts in 1999 to 2,541 in 2006, according to commission statistics.
Belton said cases related to Islam don’t necessarily make up a clear majority of the increase. He’s seen filings, he said, related to Judaism, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Islam, Rastafarianism, Roman Catholicism, and others.
Beverly Watts, executive director of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, said it’s common for EEOC filings to be followed by an increase in discrimination-related complaints. The commission receives and processes complaints related to discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing.
“It becomes public knowledge. It creates awareness. People say, ‘Oh, that happened to me,’” Watts said.